On Jessica Jones, Netflix and the Utility of Trigger Warnings
I’ve argued recently that there’s a demonstrated unwillingness among many blockheads to entertain with any degree of intellectual humility the psychic utility of safe spaces. Practiced garbagemen like Richard Dawkins throw out insults like “whiny” and “crybaby” to malign those who have every right to carve out spaces to breathe away from those who refuse to acknowledge the relativity of human suffering.
Similarly, academics are under fire from shitbrains who think an asterisk on a syllabus denoting triggering material is somehow coddling the mind. Wholly irrelevant white men are practically clambering over each other to pen salvos on the absurdity of providing students such information, as if it’s tantamount to censorship.
As if irrelevant white men need more platform.
But to equate trigger warnings to censorship is intellectually dishonest.
In fact, it’s so fucking dishonest, I’d argue that making this false comparison is politically motivated.
What those with privilege want least in the world is to have is those who are systematically disadvantaged questioning the legitimacy of a system where only privileged blockheads penning bullshit salvos get to decide what is and isn’t necessary for the systematically disadvantaged to know.
Let’s be clear: opponents of safe spaces and trigger warnings are defending their privilege to live in a world where vulnerable people just shut up and take their abuse.
This is pretty much the fundamental truth of inequality.
So how does this relate to Jessica Jones?
The show, like its source material, is a genius rumination on the story of a woman with superpowers who finds herself coming out of an abusive relationship. Throughout the entire series Jessica Jones is haunted by PTSD and ultimately her own abuser in the flesh.
Now, Netflix could have— at no extra cost to itself — made the trivial effort to denote that Jessica Jones is most definitely a show rife with triggering content. Putting a note on the synopsis screen warning viewers that the show is literally entirely about abuse and as such contains imagery and discussion of said abuse is faithful to the show’s premise.
But they did not.
As a survivor of abuse myself, I can tell you that this show is uncomfortable to watch. I can feel, having only watched the first two episodes, the potential for flashbacks and emotional trauma. Does this mean I’m weak? Whiny? A crybaby? LOL fuck you, Richard Dawkins.
If you’re at all sensitive to the suffering of others, you’re going to start feeling pulled to empathize with Jessica which sets off a cascade of emotions that you may or may not exactly have the time, resources or ability to process on a random Tuesday evening. You do not have to have experienced abuse yourself to be troubled by scenes of emotional violence. To you, I say bless your dogged commitment to humanity.
But if you yourself have ever experienced the fear of loving someone who hurts you, manipulates you and makes you feel like your entire identity is worthless without him, watching a narrative of abuse — however fictive — may cause your body to recall that biographical data involuntarily. Because your lived experience will color how you experience this show, trigger warnings are empowering to you because they help you gauge for yourself how much you can actually enjoy an hour-long show that has the potential to leave you crying in the shower for five hours reliving personal flashbacks.
A lot of people fail to appreciate that for almost the entirety of human existence, we did not have text let alone fucking moving imagery that could incite emotions within us. Your emotional response system is not capable of differentiating between a TV show and your “real life” experience. To your body, you are experiencing this TV show. Your nervous system is pressing the panic button. Your body does not understand Jessica Jones isn’t real, but it knows pain is and it’s trying to save you.
The point of a trigger warning is not to tell people “Don’t watch this.” Or “You’re too weak to handle this.” The point of a trigger warning is to empower all viewers by informing them of what they can expect so they can make the best decision for themselves, cognizant all the while that the viewer’s personal response is just that: personal.
In an academic setting, the need for such information is painfully obvious to me. From the perspective of a female college student, if I were recently sexually assaulted, as one out of three women on college campuses are, maybe reading a book where rape plays a central theme might be a fucking bad idea if I have the job interview of my life the next day. Thankfully, my professor had the foresight to denote on the syllabus that this assigned material is triggering and as such, I know to read it after my interview. Maybe 99% of the class won’t need that note, but I sure did and I’m thankful it was there.
Because that’s how solidarity works, people; it’s not always about you.
What would be absolutely dick of me to do from a position of power is to force my students to read whatever the hell I assign with complete and utter disregard for their emotional wellbeing knowing what I know about the completely deplorable state of mental health services on college campuses and their peer culture in general.
But casual disregard is what people in privileged positions practice every day. They use their privilege to dictate to others what is and isn’t legitimate suffering. They do not reflect on the experiences of others and do virtually nothing to coordinate their behaviors as to minimize harm.
Because most of them are completely oblivious.
But let’s not be chickenshits about it: many of them are just complete dicks.
Netflix could have made a powerful statement by adding a trigger warning to Jessica Jones that in no way would have constituted censorship or hurt their bottom line. Doing so would have made the profound point that trigger warnings are an empowering service to their audience that in no way takes anything away from its performance or their autonomy as consumers.
But they didn’t.
And so the question worth reflecting upon here is this: why the hell not, Netflix?
For more on trigger warnings: